For two weeks, as bombs and artillery rained down on the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, Natalia Kharabuga huddled in a basement with her two daughters and 100 others.
All they could do was sit and listen while their neighborhoods were destroyed under near-constant bombardment.
Some of those sheltering with Kharabuga clutched shovels in case the entire building collapsed and they had to frantically dig people out.
There was no heat. No electricity. No water.
When Kharabuga and others were forced to emerge from the underground to try and find water, she saw a city in ruin, surrounded by death.
“Everything was torched… there were bodies everywhere,” the 42-year-old told CBC News in Riga, Latvia, where she arrived earlier this month after a harrowing 11-day journey out of Ukraine.
Kharabuga spoke on Thursday, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, on state television for a successful military operation, saying Mariupol had been “liberated.”
“This is tyranny,” Kharabuga said in response. “What is he congratulating him for? There is nothing left.”
A city of 400,000 on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol is strategically important. The weeks-long bombardment has been devastating and killed thousands.
Images on social media show Russians flags, as well as flags from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic being hoisted in the city, while others show Chechen fighters, who are aligned with Russia, celebrating in front of rubble.
After weeks of mounting losses and slow progress in capturing Ukrainian territory, Russia is keen to proclaim a military win. Now, with its troops surrounding Mariupol, there is increasing talk about Russia’s goal to take the south coast of Ukraine in order to create a land bridge to Crimea.
The Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, is connected to the country by a bridge over the Kerch Strait. If Russia controlled Ukraine’s coastline, Crimea would be connected to territories Russian-backed forces occupy in Ukraine’s east.
On Friday, the commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Rustam Minnekaev, confirmed this. Minnekaev was quoted in state media saying that one of Russia’s goals is to establish full control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine in order to create a land corridor to Crimea.
Minnekaev said it would not only give Russia influence over Ukraine’s economy, but provide an opportunity for the military to access Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria. Minnekaev said Russian speakers there were being oppressed.
His comments, which were made at a Russian defense meeting, followed a statement by a deputy in Russia’s State Duma. On Thursday, Oleg Morozov told state television that Russia’s operation in Mariupol had achieved a “long-awaited goal.” He said the port was now liberated and there would be a land road to Crimea.
WATCH | Putin claims that Mariupol is ‘liberated,’ while Ukrainians continue to fight:
‘Republics friendly to Russia’
In the state newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, columnist Mikhail Rostovsky predicted what could happen next, saying southern Ukraine could be “chopped with referendums” to create a “belt of people’s republics friendly to Moscow.”
The Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics were created in 2014 when Russian-backed forces seized large chunks of Eastern Ukraine and helped install local administrations. No country in the world, besides Russia, recognizes these regions as independent states.
Since then, several hundred thousand residents in those regions were given Russian passports.
Parts of Mariupol saw heavy fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed militia in 2014. Ukraine briefly lost control of the city, before regaining it.
The city contains some of Ukraine’s largest metal plants, including the Azovstal steelworks, where Ukraine says several hundred fighters, along with as many as 1,000 civilians, are holed up and surrounded by Russian forces.
At a televised meeting on Thursday, Putin ordered his defense minister to “cancel” a plan to storm the massive factory and its large labyrinth of tunnels, because it would unnecessarily risk the lives of the military.
Instead he said the area should be blocked, so that not even a fly can get out.
Pavel Luzin, a St. Petersburg-based political analyst, says Putin’s messaging was aimed at both an international and domestic audience. He believes Putin was trying to convince people that he isn’t a “cruel, crazy maniac,” but also that he alone holds control.
Luzin says he can’t begin to speculate what is running through Putin’s mind, because he’s not a “psychotherapist.” But he believes in the short term, Russia needs to create some kind of stability, because its military forces are depleted and by mid-May, soldiers will need to be rotated out.
He dismisses talk about the need for Russia to secure some kind of military win by May 9, which is when the country celebrates its annual Victory Day, to mark the army’s achievements during the Second World War. A parade involving 11,000 military members is planned.
Luzin says there doesn’t need to be tangible progress in Ukraine because the Kremlin, which has essentially wiped out all independent media inside Russia, controls the narrative and can spin the situation how it pleases.
Life of a refugee
Natalia Kharabuga says that as a Russian speaker in Mariupol, she never felt any oppression by Ukrainians, a claim the Kremlin frequently makes.
She admits she is not a political analyst, but believes Russia is just after land.
While speaking with CBC, Kharabuga was clearly traumatized, and struggled to think about where her family will go next.
The five-story apartment building she lived in was destroyed. The entrance collapsed, and then the whole structure caught on fire.
She thinks back on her neighborhood, where kids would walk to school and play in yards full of flowers.
“[The Russians] just came in and blew it all up and trashed it, “she said.” How will I ever return there again? “
Luzin says his heart is broken over what is happening in Ukraine, admitting he has strong family connections there.
His grandfather was born in Lviv, Ukraine, but his family was forcibly relocated to Perm, Russia, when he was 11 because some relatives had been involved in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in the 1940s. The UPA was a paramilitary, nationalist organization that primarily fought against Soviet and Polish forces during the Second World War and was at times allied with the Nazis.
A few of Luzin’s relatives were sent to gulags.
He fears the war in Ukraine could drag on for years, and play out in periods of intense fighting and relative calm.
Putin may say his goal is to eradicate Ukrainian Nazis, but Luzin believes he wants all of Ukraine, at any cost.
“The Kremlin is currently going to take a desert, a devastated city [Mariupol]”he said.” The plan is the same as it was in 2014: a political goal to destroy the Ukrainian state. “